What’s the smallest number of plate appearances a player can have before he becomes a bust? There’s no handy algorithm for busts, no simple test like 0-for-X where as long as X > 15, the player is a bust. It’s a pretty informal, gut level feeling based on everything from expectations to the level of competition the player has failed against. Mat Gamel hasn’t yet reached 200 PAs in the major leagues, but I’ve seen less support for him than for most prospects-on-the-precipice, even those who have an actual track record of failure, which strikes me as odd.
After a strong 2008 season at Double-A Huntsville when he hit .329/.395/.537 with 19 home runs, Gamel was rated as one of the top 50 prospects in baseball. His 2009 campaign at Triple-A Nashville wasn’t quite was as good, he hit .278/.367/.473, but he remained a top-100 prospect heading into the 2010 season. While he missed much of 2010 with a shoulder injury, in 2011 he hit .310/.372/.540 over 128 games again at Triple-A, so he’s clearly not flailing in the minors. The majors, however, present Gamel with serious challenges, though some of that may come from a lack of consistent playing time prior to 2012.
His longest exposure to major league pitching came in 2009 when he got just under 150 PAs as a 23-year-old. His numbers weren’t awe-inspiring — .242/.338/.422 with 5 HR — but survivable in a fantasy sense, though perhaps just as an injury replacement. Since then, Gamel has had just about the least inspiring 44 PAs possible. Over 2010 and 2011, Gamel has hit just .146/.205/.195 in the majors without a single home run and with a 12/2 K/BB ratio. Anyone who has seen his performance in the majors could hardly be blamed for being uninspired, but giving up on him entirely seems premature.
If he’s going to prove his doubters wrong, the first thing he has to do is cut down on his strikeouts. Like a lot of sluggers, he’ll probably always have an elevated K-rate, but right now he isn’t even putting enough balls in play to give himself a chance. His .136 BABIP in 2011 is going to come up, that’s an absolute given, but it won’t matter much to his overall line if he puts a ball in play in about a quarter of his plate appearances. In a related aspect of his game, Gamel needs to regain his propensity for walking. He walked in fewer than 9 percent of his plate appearances in the minors for the first time since 2008 last season, but still struck out in over 15 percent of his PAs. That ratio may work the minors, where he makes solid contact with frequency, but that gulf is only going to widen if he spends consistent time in the majors.
His minor league numbers show he can hit for power and can get on base, but if he can’t bring those skills up a level, he’ll be nothing more than the latest Jeff Clement, Jake Fox, or some other Quad-A player of your choice. I want to believe that a shot at consistent playing time is going to help him, but the reality of his game right now is that he’s much more likely to hit his floor than it is that he’ll hit his ceiling. Unlike Pedro Alvarez or Travis Snider, Gamel hasn’t done much of anything in the majors that gives me concrete hope as to what he can do with greater responsibilities. It is possible that if he’s in the lineup day in and day out, he’ll be exposed by pitchers who can find and exploit his weaknesses.
2012 is going to be a critical year for Gamel. With Prince Fielder now well and truly out of the picture and Ryan Braun almost certainly missing the first two months of the season, Gamel should get at least 50 games of consistent exposure to show what he can do. I think there’s a chance that Gamel shows signs of life during that span, and it isn’t as though the Brewers are lousy with first baseman on the roster at present, which makes it possible that he’ll get more than just 50 games to learn how to play at this level. Opportunity is, of course, a double-edged sword, but by June 1, I suspect Gamel won’t be able to say, “I never got the chance to really show them what I can do”.
For keeper owners, I would hold on to Gamel for the time being, though the time being could end as soon as June. I don’t see anyone on the roster right now that’s going to keep him from starting the season as the Brewers’ first baseman and either he’s going to hack it or he’s not, and at that point, decisions about his immediate future — both fantasy-wise and as a player with his current organization — are going to be made. I don’t recommend going into the season with him as a primary first baseman, but if he’s in a UTL spot, that’s not a team-killing move.
For redraft players, somewhat unfortunately, playing time seems like the biggest thing working in Gamel’s favor right now. Unlike almost everyone else I’ve talked about so far, he’s virtually guaranteed 130+ PAs to start the season. He’ll have first base eligibility, which makes him playable in deeper NL-only leagues out of sheer necessity if nothing else, but he’ll also have third base eligibility in most leagues, which gives owners another shallow spot to plug him into. He’s a risky play — I can’t sugar coat that at all, he might be the biggest risk covered in this series — but the talent is there. If you’re in a league that counts strikeouts, Gamel may be best left to someone else as he will absolutely hurt you there and may or may not add something in the other categories to make up for his whiffs.
I know I’ve battered him a bit, but there’s something I want to like about Gamel, but there’s just not much in the numbers to bear it out. He doesn’t have any standing injury issues I’m worried about, so that’s a mark in his favor, albeit not a big one. I think the best way to put it is this: Gamel has his chance this year, the one it doesn’t seem like he’s gotten before, and there’s definitely potential in that. What he does with that chance, well, that still scares me a little.
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